Ethnocentrism is the term used to describe the phenomenon of people from a certain group seeing all other groups in comparison to their own as the ideal. Ethnos is the Greek word for “nation,” so ethnocentrism literally means nation-centered. Ethnicity itself is a word that is broad enough to include any number of features that differentiate a group, such as ancestry, language, religion, culture, or geographic proximity. Ethnocentrism should not be confused with nationalism or patriotism (loyalty and pride in one’s nation). Instead, ethnocentrism usually is used negatively in the social sciences.
Because anthropology is the study of human development, those undertaking the study are vulnerable to unfairly comparing other groups to their own. It is impossible, however, to step completely outside of one’s own perspective, and the ethnocentric view is not always a distinction of superiority. National holidays in the United States, for example, were based upon Christian ideologies for many years, perhaps not intentionally to neglect other religions such as Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism, but rather based on the assumption that the majority of citizens were Christian. Sometimes certain assumptions are imposed concerning the behavior of other groups. Americans may question the Spanish or Italian siesta when businesses close mid-afternoon for a break after lunch, thinking this a prime time to be working and keeping shops open. Europeans likewise may question the average 2-week American vacation (compared to nearly a month for many European countries), wondering if Americans prefer to be earning money rather than spending quality time at home with their families. Language and concepts that incorporate knowledge are also influenced by culture-specific ideas. What one group identifies as “blue” or “love” might mean different things to members of different groups. Through recognizing that one’s observations about the world begin from within a particular cultural position, the anthropologist can gain a better understanding of both one’s own and other cultures.
The attitude characterized by ethnocentrism is probably as old as human civilization; traditionally, other cultures were seen as people to be conquered or demonized, often for differences of religion. It was not until the 20th century that anthropology began to integrate the concept into theory and methodological practice, however. In his 1906 book Folkways, William Graham Sumner first used the word “ethnocentrism” to explain the way of seeing the world as surrounding one’s own group, which is in the center. As humans observe others humans, groups of people are seen as either “us” or “them.” Studies of one’s own people, also called the “in-group,” are informed by the researcher’s personal experiences and understanding of cultural values. Studies of other people, or the “out-group,” automatically place the observer outside of the culture being observed. Despite intentions to collect fact-based data, the “affectivity in cognition” theory suggests it is difficult, if not impossible, to completely step aside from one’s vantage point. When data are analyzed with the assumption that one’s home culture is superior, the study is tainted with a sort of collective egoism, and that attitude is what we call ethnocentrism.
Ethnocentrism is one of several subclasses of sociocentrism, which, as the name implies, is a central focus around one’s own society. Other subclasses include nationalism, class sociocentrism, and specific heritage-focused attitudes like Eurocentrism or Afrocentrism. All of these positions feature two major elements. There is positive valorization, or the presumption of an especially high value on the accomplishments of the in-group. There is also the perspective of evaluating the out-group by comparing those values to one’s own. Whatever is praised, or positive, within the in-group is considered to be the normal way of behaving. Whatever is criticized, or negative, is seen as an exception to the norm. An ethnocentric observer will compare the out-group to the norms and exceptions already determined for the in-group. If the observer sees no difference, then the out-group is considered to be identical to the in-group. If differences are noted, they are weighed according to positive and negative assumptions. When the out-group positively values something determined to be negative in the in-group, or the out-group negatively values something determined to be positive in the in-group, the ethnocentric member of the in-group considers the out-group to be developmentally inferior.
Such condemnation can be behind negative cultural attitudes like racism, discrimination, and ethnic cleansing. Ethnocentric behaviors are easily observed in the way the German Nazi regime sought to exterminate the Jewish people, and even through eugenics, the goal of perfecting a breed of human through sterilization and genetic manipulation. In eugenics the intention is less to distinguish people according to ancestry than rather by mental, physical, or health characteristics, such as preventing diseases spread through natural reproduction. Taken to an extreme, however, the ethnocentric group increasingly identifies as “negative” the characteristics that perhaps occur in healthy people. The Western nations of Sweden and the United States forced sterilization on mentally ill citizens well into the 20th century—many of whom were institutionalized for the equivalent of what is called “depression” today. This practice forfeited individual reproductive rights for the betterment of the larger cultural group. When value judgments are placed on what makes someone human or healthy or worthy of propagating the species, those passing judgment are centering their opinions of worth around themselves. By suppressing the outside or inferior group, the status of the in-group is further elevated.
It is natural for people to associate with a group and to find value in the self through pride in one’s culture. Furthermore, the awareness of others is fostered by the groups people live within, so an individual’s concept of right, wrong, appropriate, and offensive will usually reflect the values of the group as a whole. The anthropologist is interested in recognizing this tendency in the people studied as well as limiting its negative effects within the field. In an effort to overcome ethnocentrism in academic practice, contemporary anthropology has advanced a position of cultural relativism. By recognizing that the individual is influenced by the in-group’s cultural values, the anthropologist is able to step back to appreciate the unique characteristics of every culture without judgment. Such a position also encourages the observer to understand behaviors and values for the roles that they serve for that culture. By acknowledging and accounting for ethnocentrism, the study of anthropology allows a deeper understanding of the adaptations made within diverse cultural groups and within one’s own.
- LeVine, R. A., & Campbell, D. T. (1972). Ethnocentrism: Theories of conflict, ethnic attitudes and group behavior. New York: John Wiley.
- McGrane, B. (1989). Beyond anthropology: Society and the other. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Preiswerk, R., & Perrot, D. (1978). Ethnocentrism and history: Africa, Asia and Indian America in Western textbooks. New York: Nok.